Friday, January 23, 2015

Uncertainty/risk in terms of plot

I am a pantsing-type writer, so my characters always come first. Their choices change the course of the plot, which is why, for me as a writer, knowing a character’s field of focus is essential.

Which is why this particular post is going to feel like it bled over from yesterdays... plot & character are inseparable in my mind. I get writers block when I disconnect when a character, when I don’t know how they would react, what choice they would make, etc.

Probably, one of the main reasons I’m not very good at understanding structure is because I write this way.

The last post on character already talked a bit about plot, about how the character must have a believable set of experiences/knowledge by the time they hit the climax, and similarly, this post is going to waver between plot & character.

You can break plot down into character reactions/decisions. When a character is hit with something they are unprepared for (uncertainty), they’re going to react.

When a character is hit with something they are prepared for (risk), they are going to make a decision.

Now, I’m not guaranteeing that every time your character comes up again uncertainty they will fail and every time they come up again risk they will succeed. There are always outside influences that affect the outcome, good or bad.

Many of those outside influences will be like a trail of breadcrumbs through the story, insignificant on their own, but when the MC gets to the climax, they realize they’ve got an entire loaf of bread. (Note-to-self: hydras probably like bread, yes? What about pit-vipers?)

As writers, we are (or should be) masters at manipulation.

In ‘Who-dun-it’ novels, facts are the breadcrumbs. Essentially, a series of sensory data that the MC observes, then puts all those pieces together in a cohesive pattern. When the MC is clear on what happened, s/he fingers the butler as the killer.

We provide clues to the reader, not just observational data (which you can consider, for the purpose of my point, hard data. As in: facts), but with emotional and psychological filters through which that data is absorbed (as in, your character’s field of focus). They may notice a room full of things (the list of hard data) but will only focus on some of it (the field of focus).

You can provide all the facts in the world, you can tell a smoker the statistics of how many people die from cancer, if the data exists in the realm of ‘uncertainty’, they’re not going to stop smoking. They are going to believe they’re that 1% who will survive, so they pull themselves out of the trenches and run forward into machine-gun-fire.

To hook a reader, we have to transition ‘uncertainty’ into ‘risk’ We have to bring it into their personal field of focus, and the best way to do that is to make them care.

YES! Emotional manipulation!

But… how do we do that?

We mine our own experiences. We break our own hearts, we bleed on the page, we mourn the loss of a favourite pet.

Personally, I’m really sick of the phrase ‘save-the-cat’, but I’m going to use it anyways because it’s a general concept I think most people are familiar with. For those who aren’t, the general principle is to show an unlikable character doing something nice, like rescuing a vulnerable kitten who is alone in the rain -> to show they are only mean-and-prickly on the outside but are really a marshmallow on the inside.

Alternatively, there’s ‘kick-the-dog’, where a seemingly nice character is seen secretly being mean to someone else, therefore letting the reader/viewer know that that character is super evil.

It feels like bad/poorly done emotional manipulation... it's so obvious, I tend to roll my eyes.

I don’t like these terms because they simplify things into *good* and *evil*, but they are easy to work with/explain, and in terms of actual writing, you can get similar impact in a much subtler way.

Example: In TRoRS, Triss steals a bag of chips to share with N... not Triss' favourite flavour, N's favourite. Small acts of consideration, of putting another character first, are a lot more subtle, and a lot more realistic than literally saving a cat in the rain.

And characters don’t have to be likeable. Most of my characters... I seriously think I'm trying to make readers hate them (what's wrong with me?)

But think of the term anti-hero, or flawed main character. How many people like Spiderman and Batman more than Superman? Batman, especially, because even with all his fancy toys, he’s human, he’s mortal, he has no superpowers. He has to work harder than other superheros, and we kindof admire that.

(I don’t like “heros”. Heroes often make me angry when they justify horrible deeds because ‘they have no choice’ or are simply horrible people, but it's justified 'cause they are 'saving-the-world')

I am a huge fan of both Courtney Summers and Laurie Halse Anderson. These amazing authors (and others) write interesting and realistic characters, and it's their characters that made me want to write YA in the first place. If you’ve never read CS’s thoughts on “unlikable female characters”, read this and this and this.

There are reasons you keep turning the pages in CS’s books, not as obvious as a ‘save-the-cat’ thing, but there are moments where you understand the prickly, mean, selfish character… and that’s enough to keep reading.

Emotional manipulation. That’s how we let a reader see through the emotional/psychological lens of our characters. So what’s that all about?

Prepare to groan…

It’s in showing, not telling.

Essentially, it’s about letting the reader live in the character’s skin, letting them view the data through that character’s field of focus instead of simply summarizing what happened. When you summarize, there’s no emotional connection. When you live in the character’s skin, that’s where you experience the sights, smells, and emotions of the character.

And that’s how/why you care. Because you are gaining experience. That character’s life transitions from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’. You learn the ability to plan/manage/understand the character's choices.

It’s no longer a statistic printed on a cigarette carton, it’s discovering your 6 year old daughter has asthma because of your smoking. Suddenly an uncertainty, something so unlikely to happen you don’t even think about it, becomes a risk. It enters your field of focus and becomes important.

You can't un-learn knowledge/experience.

Yeah, I know it seems like I’m wandering all over the place. Like trying to walk a beagle right? They’re constantly weaving all over the place, stopping short, and getting underfoot.

(also eating gross things on the ground… shiny tangent? where? /gives self minor whiplash...)

My point is:

Each plot point/progression has to have an emotional stake, something that matters to the character. To use another very common/familiar example, in ‘The Hunger Games,’ Katniss had no reason to volunteer to be tribute… but why did she?

She had all the facts, she knew whoever went would die, there was a statistical chance her sister could be chosen, but the thought never even occurred to her as being in the realm of possibility until her sister’s name was called and the idea, and the risk/outcome, entered her field of focus. It suddenly became important.

Then she had to make a decision.

And this is why I say that, for me, a character’s choice changes the course of the story, and to know what they would choose, first you have to know their field of focus. What constitutes risk and what constitutes uncertainty? What are their past knowledge, experience, and interests?

...and what about the characters around your MC?

And with that food-for-thought, I'll leave you. Have a good weekend, all!

/end nerdy-series-of-posts.

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